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Arrest of dad at Gilford School Board meeting about Picoult book 'chilling' says judge, case dismissed

By DAN SEUFERT
Union Leader Correspondent

December 19. 2014 3:50PM
Baer, as he was arrested by Gilford Police Lt. Jim Leach after a school board meeting on May 5. 

Baer

GILFORD – William Baer, the local attorney who was arrested at a school board meeting for loudly arguing with the board and another parent in the audience as he challenged the school district's use of a book deemed “triple-X-rated” by one parent, has been exonerated of police charges against him for disrupting the meeting.

Circuit Court Judge James M. Carroll said Baer, while said to be unruly at the meeting, was exercising his right to free speech at the meeting and should not have been arrested, an act that Carroll described as “chilling.”

“…individuals, from time to time, may be disruptive but the disruptiveness should not be cause for an arrest,” Carroll wrote in his decision.

Baer, who was defended by high-profile attorney Mark Sisti of Chichester, said he is pleased at the ruling, in which his civil rights were violated.

“I am obviously pleased that all charges have been dismissed … (the judge's ruling) showed me there still is some justice in our system,” he said.

During a trial this summer, Carroll was presented a video of the events on May 5, when Baer complained to the board after his ninth-grade daughter was assigned the book “Nineteen Minutes” by bestselling author Jodi Picoult of Hanover for an honors English class. One section of the book contains graphic sexual detail involving the relationship of two young people.

At the meeting, after questioning the board, Baer was not satisfied with board members' answers and continued questioning the board in a loud voice. He then engaged in a debate with another parent, despite the protests of Superintendent Kent Hemingway.

A police officer in attendance then arrested Baer on three counts of disorderly conduct, actions questioned by Carroll.

“The court does not find the actions of the defendant to be criminal in nature, which is necessary in the ordering of restrictions on a citizen's liberties in First Amendment considerations. The court finds that the defendant's action never created a breach of peace sustaining a criminal complaint,” he wrote in his Dec. 14 decision.

“The sequence of the arrest actions cause pause by the court as to the chilling, if not silencing of a citizen by the state, for actions which do not warrant a criminal arrest nor conviction,” he wrote.

Gilford police did not comment on the ruling. Hemingway was not available for comment.

Baer said the issue hasn't been resolved completely.

"I was fortunate enough to be experienced in the legal system, and also had the determined, talented, and effective counsel of (Sisti and his staff),” he said.

“But what about those who have none of these advantages? One of the most troubling aspects of this experience is having to face the fact that, out of the millions of people arrested every year in the United States, many are unlawfully arrested, maliciously prosecuted, wrongfully convicted, or pressured to plead guilty just to get it over with.”

School officials, who admitted to making an error in offering the book without prior parental approval, have worked since the incident to improve the district's curriculum approval system, moves Baer said he appreciates.

dseufert@newstote.com



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